Intel Arc – What You Need to Know

NVIDIA and AMD spring to mind when you think of graphics cards, but that’s about to change. A new challenger approaches – Intel. Yes, this famous CPU manufacturer is entering the fray with Intel Arc, their first discrete GPUs.

Image by: Intel

This blog was updated in October 2022.

  • Intel Arc A-Series are Intel’s first discrete GPUs.
  • The naming scheme of Intel Arc 3, 5, and 7 GPUs resemble Intel’s Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs.
  • Intel Arc GPUs and based on Intel’s new Xe-HPG architecture.
  • Intel Arc GPUs support both AV1 video encoding and decoding.
  • XeSS is Intel’s answer to AI-powered image reconstruction, akin to NVIDIA DLSS.
  • Intel Arc A750 and A770 desktop cards launch October 12th, with real-time raytracing and on-paper performance comparable to NVIDIA’s RTX 3060.
  • Resizable BAR is practically a requirement for Intel Arc GPUs.
  • Intel ARC is optimised for modern APIs. Performance is questionable in older ones.

NVIDIA and AMD spring to mind when you think of graphics cards, but that’s about to change. A new challenger approaches – Intel. Yes, this well-known CPU manufacturer is entering the fray with Intel Arc, their first discrete GPUs.

While Intel has had low-powered iGPUs on their CPUs for well over a decade, gaming-grade dGPUs have been a long time coming ever since the cancellation of ‘Project Larrabee’ in 2022. After months of teasers and behind-the-scenes developer talks, Intel Arc is finally here. Here’s what you need to know.

Intel Arc A-Series

Image by: Intel

Intel Arc A-Series, also known as Alchemist Series, is Intel’s first generation of discrete graphics. It’s releasing in waves throughout 2022. ‘Arc 3’ released earlier this year in thin-and-light and entry-level gaming laptops, as well as a desktop card for China. We’ve had to wait for the beefier ‘Arc 5’ and ‘Arc 7’, but on October 12th, Intel entered the dGPU area with the launch of Intel Arc A750 and A770 cards.

The naming scheme of Intel Arc GPUs resemble Intel’s CPUs: Intel Core i3, i5, and i7. For example, let’s take the A350M. ‘A’ is for A-Series and ‘3’ is for Arc 3. In this case, ‘50’ acts as a model number, while ‘M’ denotes that it’s a mobile chip.

Intel Arc 3

Image by: Intel

According to Intel, Arc 3 is for “enhanced 1080p gaming” and “industry-leading content creation”. You can think of it as a step up from iGPUs. Right now, there’s the base-model A350M (with 6 Xe Cores, 6 Raytracing Units and 4GB GDDR6 VRAM) and the faster A370M (with 8 Xe Cores, 8 Raytracing Units and 4GB GDDR6 VRAM).

Rated for just 25-35W and 35-50W of power respectively, don’t expect mind-blowing performance from Arc 3. Intel has demonstrated the Intel Arc A370M performing slightly above 60 frames-per-second at a medium pre-set in a range of triple-A games, including Hitman 3 and Doom Eternal. Arc 3 is shaping up to be a great alternative to iGPUs for the strict power and thermal envelopes of thin-and-light devices.

Intel Arc 5 & Intel Arc 7

Image by: Intel

It’s Arc 5 and Arc 7 where we’ll see “advanced gaming” and “high-performance gaming” respectively, promising performance that’ll give NVIDIA and AMD a run for their money.

As of now, there’s only one model of Intel Arc 5, the A550M (with 16 Xe Cores, 16 Raytracing Units and 8GB GDDR6 VRAM). This GPU double the A370M’s spec-sheet across the board, while running at 60-80W. The A550M should compete as a mid-range laptop GPU, with the likes of AMD’s 6600M or NVIDIA’s mobile RTX 3060.

On the other hand, Arc 7 is available in several configurations: as two mobile chips and, most excitingly, two desktop cards. The A730M (with 24 Xe Cores, 24 Raytracing Units and 12GB GDDR6 VRAM) draws 80-120W, while the full-fat A770M (with 32 Xe Cores, 32 Raytracing Units and 16GB GDDR6 VRAM) draws 120-150W.

This power consumption is creeping up toward the mid-range of gaming laptop GPUs, so we’re interested to see if Intel’s already got a mobile RTX 3070 equivalent on their hands. That amount of VRAM shouldn’t be ignored either. 12 and 16GB of VRAM is considerably more than most laptops, making Intel Arc 7-powered laptops on-the-go content creation machines.

Looking at the desktop cards, the A750 (with 28 Xe Cores, 28 Raytracing Unit and 8GB GDDR6 VRAM) and A770 (with 32 Xe Cores, 32 Raytracing Units and 8/16GB GDDR6 VRAM depending on the model) are rated for a total board power of 225W, reaching clock speeds of up to 2.1GHz. On paper, we’d expect these cards to perform in a similar ballpark as NVIDIA’s RTX 3060. In reality, however, these cards are heavily dependent on ResizableBAR and modern APIs for optimal performance, as we’ll see later.

XeHPG Architecture – Raytracing, AV1, and more

Image by: Intel

Intel Arc A-Series GPUs are based on Intel’s new Xe-HPG (Xe High Performance Graphics) architecture. Designed from the ground up, Xe-HPG isn’t just a continuation of Intel’s work on iGPUs. A fundamental part of Xe-HPG is Xe Cores and their XMX Matrix Engine, Intel’s equivalent to NVIDIA Tensor Cores. These accelerate AI workloads, like Intel XeSS. Which is, again, equivalent to NVIDIA DLSS.

Even though Intel Arc A-Series demonstrates Intel’s first attempt at discrete graphics, these technologies put them head-to-head with NVIDIA and even ahead of AMD, who’s yet to release an AI-powered image reconstruction technology. Though this might change soon, as AMD’s RDNA 3 architecture and RX 7000 Series GPUs are to be unveiled in November.

Intel Arc GPUs support both AV1 video decoding and encoding though hardware, the first GPUs to do so. On the other hand, RTX 30 Series and RX 6000 Series GPUs only support AV1 decoding.

What’s more, Xe-HPG is compatible with DirectStorage and the rest of DirectX 12 Ultimate’s feature set, including variable rate shading, mesh shading, sampler feedback and, most intriguingly, real-time raytracing. Looking at benchmarks, Intel Arc A750 and A770’s raytracing performance is shockingly competitive with similarly classed RTX 30 Series GPUs, like the RTX 3060.

Intel XeSS – AI-powered image reconstruction

As covered in Why should I buy a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 40 Series GPU, image reconstruction is an essential component of modern rendering. NVIDIA has DLSS, AMD has FSR, and now Intel has Xe Super Sampling (XeSS), an AI-powered image reconstruction technology.

By leveraging a neural network that’s trained for exceptional quality, XeSS can reconstruct a lower resolution input up to a higher resolution output, with images that are “very close to the quality of native ultra-high-res rendering”. Check out the comparison video above. It’s clear that XeSS gives you a crispier image at a faster frame rate – a win-win for gaming – although YouTube’s video compression might eat some of the finer detail.

According to Intel, XeSS can boost frame rates in Hitman 3 (running at 1440p, max graphics) by up to 103% on the Intel Arc A770. Intel’s partnering with as many game studios to enable XeSS in their games and engines. At the A750 and A770’s launch, XeSS is enabled in over 20 games, including Death Stranding Director’s Cut, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Chivalry 2, and more. As it’s tailored for their architecture, XeHPG-powered GPUs achieve the best images from XeSS. Unlike DLSS, however, XeSS is an open standard and can run on other manufacturer’s GPUs via the DP4A instruction set.

Intel Arc – Before you buy

Seeing as Intel Arc A-Series is Intel’s first swing at discrete graphics, it’d be unrealistic to expect them to knock it out of the park. It’s rare that the first generation of a tech product is perfect. There’s always a ‘gotcha’ and depending on your PC’s age and what games you play, Intel Arc’s got a couple of big ones. So, before you buy an Intel Arc A-Series graphics card, there are some caveats you’ve got to be aware of.

Resizable BAR is a must

Most importantly, your CPU-motherboard combo must support Resizable BAR (Intel) or Smart Access Memory (AMD) for Intel Arc A-Series to perform optimally. We’re not talking about a single-digit difference with it on versus off. Without Resizable Bar, the performance of Intel Arc A-Series crumbles. Games that would otherwise run perfectly fine with ReBAR enabled can run double-digit percentages slower with it disabled. Intel’s not trying to hide this fact. They’ve highlighted it in several blogs and support pages, even going as far to say that “Resizable BAR is required to get a good experience with Intel Arc hardware.”

What is Resizable BAR?

When a gaming is running, geometry, textures, and more are constantly being unloaded to the VRAM. Without ReBAR, this process is executed in small 256MB chunks. It’s a holdover from the 32-bit era, back when graphics cards only had 1GB of VRAM at max. However, as games grow larger and more complex, this limitation can hamper the performance of modern cards. Say you’re traversing an open-world game at high speed. Unloading all those textures to an Intel Arc A770’s 16GB of VRAM in 256MB chunks can overwhelm it, leading to hitches and lower frame rates. That’s where ReBAR comes in, also known as Smart Access Memory on AMD systems. Resizable BAR (Base Address Registry) enables a CPU to address a much larger chunk of a GPU’s VRAM for more efficient performance. It’s a part of the PCIe standard but wasn’t supported by the major players until 2019.

Why is Resizable BAR required for Intel Arc hardware?

As Intel is new to the dGPU game, they designed their hardware for the latest technologies, including ReBAR. After all, if you’re Intel and building new hardware from scratch, why wouldn’t you optimise for it? In particular, they engineered it so that an A-Series card’s memory controller can handle the large data transfers demanded by ReBAR efficiently.

Consequently, it’s not good at small transfers. By this point NVIDIA and AMD have been in the graphics business for decades, long before ReBAR was introduced. So, their hardware handles these small transfers just fine. With Intel Arc hardware, however, ReBAR is practically a requirement. It’ll be the standard going forward, but for those rocking an older system without ReBAR support, you might want to hold off Intel Arc.

What hardware is compatible with Resizable BAR?

The oldest CPU-motherboard combo that’s compatible with Resizable BAR is an 10th-Gen Intel Core processor and an Intel 400 Series motherboard, although support varies. It’s only with 11th-Gen and beyond that ReBAR became standard. The story’s the same with AMD.

While Ryzen 3000 Series processors and AMD 500 Series motherboards do support Smart Access Memory, Ryzen 3000 G-Series processors don’t. So, it’s best to contact your motherboard manufacturer for confirmation. Even if your motherboard’s compatible, which sometimes just requires an update, you’ll need to enable ReBAR in the BIOS.

Intel Arc isn’t optimised for older APIs

Same game, different APIs.
Image by: Intel

The second ‘gotcha’ is the state of Intel’s driver stack. While it’s great to have Intel as a third competitor in the dGPU game, they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

NVIDIA and AMD have had decades to optimise their software for various application programming interfaces (APIs) used by games: DirectX, OpenGL, Vulkan, and so on. Intel’s not so lucky.

Not only are they creating hardware from scratch, but software too. Optimising their driver stack for every game is going to be a long, iterative process. It’d be an almost impossible for Intel to compete with decades’ worth of optimisation from the get-go.

Intel Arc on DirectX 12 and Vulkan

As they couldn’t optimise for every API at launch, they decided to focus their development on the most modern ones: DirectX 12 and Vulkan. Expect great performance in games that leverage these APIs, which is all games with real-time raytracing support and other modern releases. It’s when you drop down to games running older APIs, like DirectX 11 and 9, that the performances become questionable. In fact, while they develop their DirectX 9 driver, Intel is relying on a translation layer in the meantime to convert graphics commands from DirectX 9 to DirectX 12.

Check your favourite game’s API.

So, at least at present, expect less than optimal performance in older games on Intel Arc. If you’re looking to buy an Intel Arc GPU, we’d recommend checking what API your favourite games run on. You can find this on a game’s Steam page or on a site like PCGamingWiki – just search for ‘API’.

For instance, popular esports game Counter Strike: Global Offensive uses DirectX 9. So, even though Intel Arc GPUs can run modern, ray-traced experiences at fast frame rates, they’ll struggle to compete with GPUs below their power in older games.

It’s a weird predicament for Intel, but they’re banking on the fact that those buying a new GPU are doing so to play new games. Intel’s driver team has got their work cut out for them, but it’s something they’re committed to continually improve.

Intel Arc at Ebuyer

Whether you’re a laptop or desktop PC gamer, it’s great to have a third player in the GPU game to disrupt the market and put pressure on NVIDIA and AMD. Check out the Intel Arc A750 and A770 desktop cards over at Ebuyer.

Most Popular

To Top